There seems to be a proliferation of cookbooks extolling the virtues of a vegetable garden at the moment. There is a compelling argument behind the craze, both from the environmental perspective and the implications for flavour. There is also the basic appreciation you have for an item of produce you have grown yourself, an appreciation that Nigel Slater notes “you can’t get with ‘an item picked up in a two for the price of one’ promotion at the supermarket.”
However, finding a book that will help you in this noble endeavour is no mean feat. First there are the hemisphere boundaries: books from the northern hemisphere can give advice that is too specific to their region. The second pitfall can be the ratio of recipes to gardening tips.
Nigel Slater’s new book “A Cook and his Vegetable Patch” is one of the best we’ve seen. While he is situated in the Northern hemisphere, the gardening advice remains generic enough to encompass the globe (with the focus on the seasons not the specific months). Gardening tips take in to account the weather, the soil, the varieties and the pests. Suggestions are clearly explained and not bogged down in technical jargon.
It is Slater’s knowledge and portrayal of how to enjoy the fruit or vegetable that really sets this book apart. With each item of produce, from asparagus through broad beans, celeriac to Jerusalem artichokes Slater aims to find “…which seasonings will make it sing, what other ingredients it is comfortable with or most exciting with.” It is this information that is most crucial to a gardener staring down at a glut of one thing or another.
The recipes and concepts are aimed equally at newcomers and experienced cooks. Take for example his chapter on growing and cooking with beetroot. Not only does he explain the many varieties available and the different times of year you can plant them (based on weather indicators and seasons and thus easily translated to the Australian climate), Slater also takes some time to explain the simplest ways you can get the most out of them. He makes use of the leaves (as soon as possible as they wilt quickly), boils baby beets for 20 minutes (brushing the skin off with his thumb and then lightly coating with a fruit vinegar or walnut oil and some dill), or roasts the larger ones in loosely bunched foil with a dash of water (this takes substantially longer and can take up to an hour and a half). Slater notes “They are ready when you can pierce them through the heart with a skewer. As you might a vampire.”
In regards to seasoning your beetroot, Slater has composed a list of around 20 of the best flavour combinations: gherkins provide a sour note, piquant dairy produce an uplifting note, apple juice refreshes and even chocolate is a trange, but true, companion. These simple suggestions and combinations are the foundation for every great cook and it is a treat to see them so well organised in this book.
Slater’s recipes take a slightly more sophisticated and guided approach to the vegetables, but there is plenty of inspiration: there are light lamb meatballs enhanced with grated beetroot and dill, goat’s cheese and beetroot salad with hemp and poppy seeds and a chocolate, beetroot cake with crème fraiche.
This is a comprehensive cookbook that will empower people of all skill sets in their quest to grow-their-own fruit and vegetables. Whether you are a green thumb but amateur cook, or a brilliant cook and shoddy gardener … Slater’s advice will speak to you and teach you wonders.
TENDER Volume 1: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch
By: Nigel Slater
Published November 2009
592 pages, hardcover